Thursday, April 24, 2014

Q&A of the Damned

Sometimes I get asked questions. Sometimes I answer them. And sometimes I compile those answers and post them here on a week when I've not gotten around to writing something better.

Disney World?

I enjoy it, but less than I want to. The immaculately well-designed plastic experience should appeal to me utterly. But something about it just feels… the fact that it ideologically wants you to resist approaching it as the artificial experience that it is rubs me the wrong way. I remember doing the “behind the scenes” tour when I was, like, twelve, and being disappointed that it didn’t go behind the scenes enough. I want to approach Disney World on a level of pure artificiality, in full awareness of its underlying fakeness and cynicism. And it doesn’t want to let me. To me, Disney World should consist of doing things like saying “Man, Splash Mountain is a great ride. Is there like, a movie it’s based on or something?”

Are you keeping a running tally of all the things you've said in a funny caption that Clara was disguised as? If you aren't, can you please update me on someone that is? 

No, and no, but I can tell you off the top of my head that it’s a candle, some crown moulding, River Song, a hospital roof, the BBC logo, and the number two. The gag is building, shaggy dog style, to an utterly disappointing payoff.

On the subject of interviews - if you were allowed to ask Davies and Moffat just one question what would it be? (And to make it tricky it has to be the same question for both of them.)

I mean, this is actually not really on the subject of interviews, because an interview is based much more heavily on flow and arc than it appears. I mean, even an interview like my one with Alex, which was an e-mail interview where he reworked my questions a bit… actually, that’s a really good example. My original question list was in places quite different (I prompted for things on specific songs at times, and he often cut that to pick what he presumably thought was a more interesting song for a given point.), and almost all of the little interjections on my part are actually things he added.

But the shape of the interview is very much mine. There’s a conscious move from talking about the album as a whole, then larger philosophical themes, and then transitioning to the material. The form of a question might change - I had originally pitched the Goodnight London question in terms of the earlier demos, several of which I have copies of, with the idea that we might use clips to talk about the evolution of the song, which Alex ultimately decided he didn’t want to do, so he rephrased the question almost completely. But he still answered the question I asked, just without providing clips of the acoustic demo/military choir/big dumb synth-rock versions. So that still became what it always was - a question about the material process from writing a song to recording an album track.

And that came both out of the fact that Alex and I have known each other for over a decade and thus I have a good sense of how to structure an interview for him. But it’s much more than just one question - the Goodnight London question is what it is precisely because it follows a bunch of other stuff that gives context for it. For me, the best question in the interview is the big materialism question that got three paragraphs of answer to it, but that question only works because Alex had eight paragraphs of Big Artist Statement leading up to it so that when he says “We did a lot of versions of “Everything Could Change,” for example, and some of them got too obvious at times in the way we were handling the whole “voices-in-your-head” business.  The final version, especially with the sudden piano and vocal distortion on verse two, and also with the choral ending, really felt like cutting the Gordian Knot.  We hadn’t ever figured out how to end the song before that,” it’s about more than just a technical problem.

So a single question interview is a very different beast. There’s no room to start gently pushing an interview down a given path to get to the weirder stuff. I mean, give me two hours with Moffat and I could craft a phenomenal interview that gets him talking about things he’s never talked about in interviews. Hell, give me a ten question e-mail interview and I can probably get something quite interesting.

Give me a single question and all I’m going to be able to do is get a generic, default, answer that’s basically the most obvious one. Make it a question that has to be applicable to another writer as well so that I can’t even go with any specificity and, well, you’re no longer even really asking me about Davies and Moffat.

So I’ll go with my catch-all question for creative types: what work of yours do you feel never got the attention it deserved?

What do writers do?

Feel guilty about not writing, mainly. Interspersed with bursts of writing.

They Might Be Giants' Factory Showroom?

Where the band starts to go a bit wrong for me. Still has some absolutely marvelous stuff on it, though. And “Token Back to Brooklyn” felt like sorcery at the time. Was also fun, in the early days of mp3s, to see what CD rippers could and couldn’t handle the album.

A really interesting transition point in the nature of the 90s, though. I really need to find a project that will let me just dive into the 90s at the length I want to sometimes.

Why haven't you done an essay about Dr. Loo and the Filthy Phaleks yet?

Utter and profound lack of interest, primarily.

The One Doctor?

One of those things that makes you admit that Big Finish can work. The thing is, it’s designed for audio. The plot based on moving around through very different circumstances. Jokes that are structured as audio jokes (the beginning only works because there are no visuals). And, of course, it’s Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, who are funny and clever. It’s an audio that’s determined to keep doing things and to be interesting over every minute of its duration. There’s never a point where you think “well, that’s the promise of that idea exhausted, now we just have to wrap the plot up and be done.”

If I were forced to teach someone how to write audio drama using only Big Finish plays, I’d hand them The One Doctor and Scherzo. And probably Zagreus as well, just so they understand how it can all go wrong.

Who is the best writer of the Cartmel era, and why?

That’s tricky, because so many are one-hit wonders, and I have trouble being inclined to judge a writer based on a single script. So for me, there are only three credible candidates: Aaronovich, Briggs, and Wyatt.

Frustratingly, each one has one very good script and one less good one. Aaronovich and Briggs have the biggest gulf in quality - Remembrance and Fenric are near perfection, Battlefield and Dragonfire are very weak. Wyatt has two scripts that are very good, but neither is as good as Aaronovich or Briggs’s best.

Past that you’ve got several writers - Munro, Platt, and Curry most obviously, although Kohll deserves a mention - who are very good with one story.

On the basis of later career, Aaronovich seems the clear frontrunner. And notably, Battlefield probably would have worked as the three-parter it was designed to be, which gives him two stories that inventively reconstruct what Doctor Who is. Briggs has one very solid story, but I'm not sold on Dragonfire even as the comedy it should have been. Wyatt is tempting, but I'd want to have seen more variety from him - both of his stories are similar structures.

But I think there's a real reason to suggest that the best writer of the Cartmel era is the one who brought it together: Cartmel himself.

Why do people call Tomb of the Cybermen a base under siege? There's no base under siege in it.

Let us broaden the definition of base under siege, then, to get one specific story structure that Doctor Who does use - one that actually begins to include a number of stories that are not obviously bases under siege at first glance.

In a base under siege, the humans are in one room, the monsters in another, and the monsters are trying to get in.

By this standard, Tomb of the Cybermen is self-evidently a base under siege. The first base under siege is still, I believe, The Tenth Planet, but I’m open to arguments about an earlier precedent. (The Sensorites starts there, but drifts quickly.)


Inferno is also a base under siege, albeit one with lots of additions. So, bizarrely, is Remembrance of the Daleks. And The Lodger is a base under siege in which the door is reversed so that the monster is trying to lure the humans into its room instead of getting into the humans' room.

Paul Cornell has referred to David Whittaker as "slightly overemphasised these days". Mission accomplished?

Perhaps. I mean, I’d obviously be the most guilty party in that critique, and it’s true that I put a lot of weight on the Whitaker angle. Much of this is due to the larger structure - Whitaker becomes a placeholder for “the magic of Doctor Who” in a slightly literal sense, because he happened to be really interested in a set of symbolism with magical implications. And, equally interestingly, he’s a cipher. We know very, very little about him. And so we’re forced to understand him entirely through his work. Which is enough that you can’t project just anything on him - he’s very clearly not Terry Nation, for instance - but still little enough that he’s a major creative figure who you can co-opt for a number of agendas that may or may not have been intentional ones. So I find him useful for the sort of criticism I do, which is based in part on a carefully chosen myopia.

And certainly I’m glad to have been potentially responsible for an alleged overemphasizing of a figure who didn’t get enough attention before. The fact that “David Whitaker was the only consistently good Troughton-era writer” was not just a reflexive and universally agreed upon statement is appalling. And that’s as much due to a certain generation of fandom’s weird fetishization of Season Five as anything, and I think Enemy of the World coming back is, in the long run, going to do more for Whitaker’s reputation than anything I ever said, but still. His reputation wasn’t good enough - he was by miles the best writer of the 1960s.

But in the long term, it doesn’t do at all for regard for Whitaker to crowd out the other very good writers of the 1960s. In particular, Dennis Spooner, Donald Cotton, Ian Stuart Black, and, it has to be said, Terrance Dicks, whose arrival conspicuously coincided with the Troughton era becoming relatively consistent in quality.

American Gods?

An interesting transitional work for Gaiman. On the one hand, it’s kind of the last interesting moment in Gaiman’s career. After it, he was untouchable literary royalty. I remember having been a fan of his stuff for a good three years prior to it - I imported a copy of Neverwhere before it got US release, had long since read all of Sandman, and was to the point of eagerly buying arcana like Midnight Days and Legend of the Green Flame the day they came out. He was brilliant and great, but also, I was the only one of my friends who read him as an author, as opposed to who knew about Sandman.

After American Gods, on the other hand, he was a celebrity author whose every release was a Big Deal.

And you can see that in his work. In any successful artist’s career, there’s a moment where they transition from youthful hunger to having it made. It’s usually a rough point as well - it’s rarely flattering for the artist. It’s where the spectre of “I liked your old stuff better” really raises its head, and there’s a fairness to it, because that hunger and desperate, frantic need to get noticed and to succeed has a peculiar and enticing effect on art. When every book could be your last you scramble madly to write them, to say everything, to make an impact.

Once you’ve properly, clearly succeeded, well… it’s not that you turn to crap, but there’s less urgency. You take a very different sort of risk. Failure isn’t quite as terrifying, and so you start creating things where the possibility of failure is accepted. These works become glorious in their own right sometimes - you’d never have something like Promethea or The Invisibles or the Berlin trilogy or Love and Monsters from someone who knows that one wrong move and their career might be over. But it’s a different sort of glory from early, hungry work.

And American Gods is where Gaiman’s hungry period ends. Sandman was brilliant, but it was a comic. Sure, Gaiman was big in comics, but that made him a big fish in a very tiny pond. American Gods was where Gaiman broke to the mainstream and became a brand unto himself.

And to be honest, it was pretty bad for his career. I find very little that he started after American Gods compelling. I think there’s a lot of self-indulgent work or work that’s pretty clearly written to cater to his built-in fanbase. (Note that Coraline was largely written prior to American Gods). From about 2001 to 2011 I dare say he was… mediocre. And while American Gods is absolutely and searingly brilliant, it’s hard not to notice that it’s directly to blame for that decade.

We seem to have moved into a new phase, however. Somewhere in amongst his first time in a decade working under a writer who was as good as he was (that’d be Moffat) or the creative influence of Amanda Palmer or just that he woke up and went “fuck, I’m fifty” and acquired a different sort of hunger. But since 2011 he’s been on fire again.

Who are all the players in The Last War In Albion again? I mean, from what I recall the five "major" players are Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis and Gillen. But then there's William Blake sometimes. A lot of the time. What about Lawrence Miles or Terry Pratchett? What about others?

Miles might make a cameo. Pratchett… well, Good Omens will happen, certainly. Past that… I mean, an exhaustive list of players is impossible at this moment. There are a lot of players. The next chapter has… Alan Davis, Chris Claremont, Steve Parkhouse, Dave Thorpe, Jamie Delano, and Frank Miller, for instance. Oh, and probably some mix of Jim Starlin, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby, but I’ve not written that bit yet.

Blake is certainly a thing, however.

Given the American Gods is where Gaiman "made it", where did the rest of the Moore, Morrison, Ellis, and Gillen make it?

The question of where Moore made it is oddly fraught, because in many ways he did so very early on. He’s never really shot for much more than making a living, and so in many ways had made it by 1983, when he was holding down regular work in three separate magazines. Once he was successful at DC and it was clear he had a long-term career it was unequivocal. Watchmen certainly took the pressure off in an entirely new way, in that he never actually had to work again if he didn’t want to, but with Moore there’s a certain lack of financial ambition that I think defines his work, and that means that the moment of making it came very weirdly early for him and had little to no actual impact on his career. There clearly is a transition as of Watchmen, but it feels in many ways like he’d already made that transition for himself once he started working for DC and was able to give up the lower-paying UK work. That feels like the moment when Moore starts being selective in what he does.

Morrison made it with Arkham Asylum, and quickly developed an effective strategy of doing moneymaking mainstream work alongside weirder personal projects. (The Invisibles/JLA being the iconic one.)

Ellis made it with Transmet, fairly straightforwardly.

Gillen… too early to tell.

Who are the equivalent players of the Last War in Albion in the writers of Doctor Who?

I don’t think there are equivalents, honestly. I don’t think I’d be interested in the project if it lined up that well with something I’d already written as much about as I have Doctor Who. In many ways, that’s why I did the joke of including TARDIS Eruditorum as an appendix to Last War in Albion: to make it clear that Albion was about different things than Eruditorum, and was not some straightforward companion piece. (I don’t think you could embed the war into TARDIS Eruditorum in the same way, honestly. I mean, when I revise the Adventuress of Henrietta Street post and/or add Book of the War in as an extra essay (yes unnoun I know your feelings on that idea) I’ll almost certainly drop the phrase in, but you could never append the War as a guest post to Eruditorum. I don’t even think you could justify a Pop Between Realities entry on the War.

Is there any ideal entry point for Blake?

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and The Book of Urizen are probably the three that best combine Blake's weirdness, an approachability, and a chronological earliness that makes understanding the later, weirder things easier. The former two are positively cuddly, while Urizen is… tougher going, but at least gets you into Blake’s mythology proper.

A Confederacy of Dunces?

I wouldn’t know - I hardly ever visit GallifreyBase anymore.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

People and Cars and Concrete (The Lodger)

In this scene, Meglos is cleverly disguised as a Silence ship.
It’s June 12th, 2010. David Guetta is at number one with “Gettin’ Over You,” with Eminem, Alicia Keys, and a duet between Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber also charting. Chris Brown postpones a UK leg of his tour because he can’t get a visa due to the fact that he’s a domestic abuser. The trial of Rod Blagojevich begins, and the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, with England playing their first game, a frankly dismal draw with the United States most notable for goalkeeper Robert Green badly fluffing a routine save. 

While on television, or, rather, slightly later in the day on television, Doctor Who offers a bit of late season levity as a calm before the storm. What’s interesting about The Lodger is, in many ways, just how influential it was. Smith’s Doctor had, from the start, been a creature of eccentricity and physical acting, but it’s not until Gareth Roberts wrote him as the funny man in a good old-fashioned comedy double act that the character became what is now the default and recognized version of the character. As with every major development in the Moffat era, this is at the moment visibly polarizing, but equally, given the sizable bloc of people who quite like the Moffat era, seems destined to eventually settle down into a consensus good thing, with the people who currently hate the Moffat era with a passion eventually fading away as its immediacy dissipates, leaving the Moffat era, like every other popularly successful era of Doctor Who, reflected upon primarily by the people who love it. 

Which is to say that the question of whether the post-Lodger characterization of the Doctor is any good is ultimately just one I’m not that interested in. Nothing is loved by everyone, but Smith’s post-Lodger Doctor is loved by loads of people, which is frankly good enough. Populism is not equivalent to quality, but the particular eccentricities of a version of the Doctor are a means to an end, and populism pretty much works to determine whether or not they’re succeeding at that end. 

Let’s instead, then, look at exactly what quietly changed with The Lodger and why it worked. The Lodger, of course, is itself an adaptation of a Gareth Roberts comic for Doctor Who Magazine featuring the Tenth Doctor and Mickey. “Adaptation,” in this case, is a terribly loose term. Several of the specific gags are recycled: the Doctor playing football, the sonic screwdriver/toothbrush confusion (although the subject of the gag switches), the “talk the girlfriend into doing something with her life” bit, and even the detail of the Doctor making an omelette are preserved. But “The Lodger” is basically a sequence of one-page gags based around the idea that the Doctor is good at everything, framed by a kind of sweet story about the Doctor trying to make things work between Rose and Mickey. 

The Lodger is straightforwardly a comedy, but its basic joke is different. Instead of being about the Doctor’s universal hyper-competence, it’s about the idea that the Doctor is simultaneously wonderful at everything and completely and utterly maladapted to society. Where “The Lodger” made jokes about the Doctor being good at all sorts of weird stuff, The Lodger jokes about the absurdity of the way in which he is good at them. “The Lodger” plays at this occasionally, most notably when the Doctor wins a video game without firing a shot because “there’s always another way,” but this is fundamentally different from the joke of the Doctor being an astonishing football player who then misunderstands his teammate’s comment about annihilating the opposition, even though both trade on essentially the same set of character traits. The result is that The Lodger becomes a story about how the Doctor is completely and utterly mad. Where “The Lodger” is about the humor of the Doctor being good at all manner of things, The Lodger is about the absurdity of putting him in those situations in the first place. 

The reason this works supremely well in The Lodger, at least, is twofold. First is that Matt Smith turns out to be very, very good at playing that sort of comedy. His broadly physical performance has always made his Doctor seem just a little madder than any of his predecessors, and it turns out that he’s absolutely magical at dropping that into sedate settings and just unleashing a bunch of impressive chaos. But this only gets proven because of how perfectly engineered the situation into which the Doctor is dropped is. First and foremost, Roberts writes a beautifully standard issue romantic comedy. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s really not - the nature of Doctor Who is that the genre you drop the Doctor into has to be developed incredibly quickly. Craig and Sophie are efficient characters who nevertheless have enough detail to be engaging. 

A fair portion of this is down to the fact that Roberts worked out a solid amount of background for Craig and Sophie hat didn’t make it into the episode - much of it detailed in The Brilliant Book alongside some more obviously humorous material like the Oligarch of Lammasteen, an explanation for the bizarrely unsettling portrait hanging in Craig’s front hall, others real bits of background Roberts created for the props department (who wanted to know how to decorate Craig’s apartment), and others bits created for the book. But ultimately, the particular reasons why this extra material exists is immaterial - the point is that he’s thought about the characters enough to be able to structure a gag like the observation that Melina is “Sophie’s fourth best friend, who thinks she is Sophie’s best friend,” coupled with the character of Clare, who is “Sophie’s third best friend, who thinks she is Sophie’s second best friend,” a joke which says so much about Sophie. (Notably, her second best friend is never revealed at all.) It’s not that Craig or Sophie are enormously complex characters, but they’re characters that Roberts has taken the time to develop to where he can riff on them. 

But this is only part of the story. A huge amount also comes from fact that Daisy Haggard and James Corden and are both very solid comic actors. Corden gets the bulk of the praise, and fair enough, as he’s got the bigger role, but Haggard, formerly of the transcendently clever Man Stroke Woman, is in many regards just as good, making Sophie compelling with less than half as many lines as Craig gets. Corden, however, is absolutely essential to the episode. For Smith’s comedic performance to really land, he needs an absolutely rock solid straight man, and Corden rises to the task. It’s fashionable to dislike Corden, who is not always great at making himself sympathetic in public, but he’s a veteran comedic actor of the sort that The Lodger needs to function. His role in the story is genuinely tricky: he has to simultaneously make Craig into a sizable enough character to serve as a one-off companion and consistently serve up a platform of beleaguered sanity for Smith to play in. Corden isn’t primarily a straight man (although he’s played the role before), and could have absolutely killed the episode stone dead by hamming up the part. Instead he manages the feat of being the big name celebrity guest star and the junior partner with aplomb. (Compare to Vincent and the Doctor, where Tony Curtis pushes Matt Smith into being the co-star of his own show. Which is wholly appropriate for that story, but would have been a nightmare here.)

That, at least, explains The Lodger itself - it works because it’s a well-structured comedy, and doubly so because it’s sandwiched between a rather intense story about suicide and mental illness and the sweepingly epic season finale, which is a good place for light comedy. But why has it had such influence? Why, after this point, does Matt Smith’s Doctor start getting written this way by everyone else? Part of the reason, certainly, is that it gets written this way by Moffat, which sets the template for everyone else. And why Moffat would embrace this characterization is straightforward. Moffat, after all, got his start as a sitcom writer, and particularly a specialist in farce. The structure of farce is essentially one of continually escalating tension followed by massive and cataclysmic release: you steadily pile on more and more misunderstandings and complexities, and then finally bring the entire structure crashing down as everybody simultaneously figures out what’s going on. 

The moment right before the balloon pops in a farce is typically characterized by having a character - typically one who has made a basically reasonable if rather self-evidently ill-advised set of decisions up to this point - behaving in a completely absurd and ridiculous manner. Which explains why Roberts’s characterization of the Eleventh Doctor is so desirable for Moffat: he can jump right to that moment with essentially no buildup. Furthermore, because the Doctor is not actually behaving stupidly when he triggers the farce-climax moment, it’s something that doesn’t end the plot so much as move it forwards. 

What this ends up doing is fueling a trend that develops over Series Six and Seven of narrative velocity - a tendency for individual stories to begin moving with increasing and impressive speed. There are a number of new sorts of narrative conventions Moffat adopts to pull this off, and he eventually ports the technique over to Sherlock where he has to develop yet another approach to it, but one of the earliest is essentially a straightforward derivative of The Lodger in which the degree to which the Doctor can immediately introduce massive amounts of chaos to a situation by bringing about a farce-climax is used to simply eliminate entire concepts in seconds. Another, equally important, is the degree to which “here’s a shot of Matt Smith being completely bonkers” is a straightforward and acceptable image that requires little to no exposition or setup.

But more broadly, there’s a change in the basic conception of the Doctor here in which “completely and utterly mad” becomes the default state, and, perhaps more to the point, where the sense of the Doctor as continually being too large for the narrative starts to be established. The other thing that really ramps up after The Lodger, and that seems to come from the way in which this episode is largely structured as a series of gags based on seeing Matt Smith behaving ridiculously, is the tendency to suggest that the Doctor has a nearly limitless number of extra adventures shoved in the margins of the text. This has always been a popular idea among Doctor Who writers who play with the expanded universe, since it’s what lets any given era of Doctor Who become a fractal into which more and more stories can be inserted. But the Moffat era is where the vast number of extra stories that can be inserted becomes a fundamental part of the narrative, and where mini-adventures start to be sketched out by a single televisual portrait of a particularly absurd comic beat. (This is, in fact, where Series Six starts.) 

Much of that comes from The Lodger and Roberts’s discovery that you can basically just put the Doctor into any situation and have it make sense with a few lines of entertaining dialogue. This is something that raises a real and proper question about its long-term implications. So far we’ve seen it work because Matt Smith is an extremely gifted physical actor, which means that the old actorly “I can do all this dialogue with a look” argument for why they shouldn’t have to memorize so many lines becomes even more true. You can sketch out an entire story by panning across a chaotic scene to get to Matt Smith looking confused and slightly guilty. This is not intrinsically true of other Doctors - indeed, trying to copy it with Capaldi would probably be, in a variety of ways, a poor idea. 


But on the other hand, the narrative techniques that have developed out of that fact are much less likely to disappear, at least while Moffat is still in charge. And, if I may risk being speculative over things outside the scope of this project, I suspect that they won’t simply because Moffat’s experimentation with just how fast you can pace a narrative is properly experimental and groundbreaking in a way that makes enduring influence seem inevitable. And while it’s not accurate to say that Roberts invented all of those approaches, he did figure out the characterization for Matt Smith’s Doctor that allowed them to develop. What we have in The Lodger, in other words, seems very much like a story much like The War Machines or The Mark of the Rani that quietly introduce a major new approach to the series, albeit in what, at the time, is such a rough draft that it doesn’t feel momentous until you’ve seen how many imitators it has. Unlike The War Machines and The Mark of the Rani, however, The Lodger stands on its own merits and is as good as it is important. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Pleasure of Smelling a Flower (Vincent and the Doctor)

This is just showing off, really.
It’s June 5th, 2010. Dizzee Rascal is at number one with “Dirtee Disco,” with Iyaz, Eminem, N-Dubz, and Aggro also charting. In news, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is finally capped, which reduces the spill without actually stopping it. And twelve people die in a killing spree in Cumbria.

On television, it’s Vincent and the Doctor. One of the most interesting innovations that Moffat brought to the program was his focus on bringing in what might be called celebrity writers. His first two seasons feature his most brazen attempts at this, although Neil Cross was no small acquisition and Neil Gaiman was originally supposed to be in the first season, so describing this as a particularly well-structured process might be overstating things. Nevertheless, what jumps out first about Vincent and the Doctor is that it is by Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, creator of Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley, and also the guy who wrote The Boat That Rocked if you want to make him come off not quite as well. 

He is, in other words, not quite the sort of person you expect to be writing Doctor Who. This was, of course, not the series’ first experiment with celebrity writers. Way back in the 1980s it tried to get Christopher Priest to write episodes, and of course, Priest was first approached by a before-he-was-famous Douglas Adams. Andrew Cartmel tried and failed to get Alan Moore to write for the series in 1988, and Stephen Fry’s abandoned script for the early Davies era continues to be the subject of the occasional rumor. And there certainly are cases of reasonably well-established writers making the move to Doctor Who - Philip Martin in 1985, for instance. 

But Richard Curtis doesn’t feel like any of these. He’s not a sci-fi writer first and foremost. And while Philip Martin was well-established, it wasn’t like he had an Oscar nomination to his name. Only Stephen Fry seems in the same ballpark, and Fry has always been a bit of a geek. Curtis, on the other hand, bristles with middlebrow respectability. At least in theory, he writes the sort of thing that people who hate Doctor Who like. Getting him to write an episode of Doctor Who, in other words, is both strange and a shot across the bow. 

What is remarkable about the episode is twofold. First, it works quite well. Second, it’s visibly written by someone who has seen next to no Doctor Who before in their lives. (Curtis has admitted that he was not a fan, and that it was not until seeing The Next Doctor with David Morrissey that he decided to accept Moffat’s invitation to write for the series.) In some ways this is oddly liberating - it is in many ways the first time we’ve seen a Doctor Who story conceived of entirely in terms of what the series has been since 2005. 

On the other hand, this being Richard Curtis, there is not actually anything terribly surprising. Vincent and the Doctor feels in many regards like the statistical mean of the new series - the episode of Doctor Who that would be written by someone who has only ever had Doctor Who described to them in general terms. 

Most obviously within this is the fact that it’s not really structured much like Doctor Who. There’s a monster, yes, but the monster is an afterthought and rather flagrantly an excuse to put together the elements the story is really interested in. That’s not to say there aren’t clever ideas - in particular, the decision to have the monster be blind is a lovely detail, although the subsequent attempt to equate the monster with van Gogh is, to say the least, strained. (OK, yes, the Krafayis was blind, but it’s still a member of a species described as “a brutal race,” and this is apparently normal behavior for the species, so.) But this isn’t built like a Doctor Who story, even though it’s unmistakably both the sort of story Doctor Who tells and a story that could only really be done in Doctor Who. On the whole, this feels more like a fresh take on Doctor Who than like a failure to get what the show is, and is basically a good thing. But there are moments where it is, at the very least, jarring - most notably the use of the pop song for the sequence where Vincent is brought to the museum to see his legacy.

The first thing to note is that it’s not actually much of a pop song. It’s a five year old track from a band who has only ever had one top ten single, and this not only isn’t it, it’s not even a song that got a single release. It’s not unrecognizable or hyper-obscure, certainly - the album went number one - but it’s also not an instantly recognizable, iconic song. It’s sure to date, but in a very different way to, say, the use of “Toxic” back in The End of the World. There it’s telling that “Toxic” fits in smoothly with “Tainted Love,” serving as clear stand-ins for a particular style of pop, as opposed to an era. Even just a year after release, betting on “Toxic” as an iconic pop song was safe. But “Chances” (which is what this song is called, if you were wondering) is not iconic.

The effect of this is that the sequence does not really seem to have a specific pop song so much as the general form of a pop song. It doesn’t matter what pop song is playing so much as that there is a pop song playing, and specifically one that, by 2010, already felt a bit dated - an indie rock piano ballad by a good old-fashioned four white guys band of the sort that was already going out of popular style when it was released. (Exactly no songs of that style hit number one in 2010) Its purpose is to simply be datedly poppy. 

This is, to say the least, an odd choice for Doctor Who. The use of a minor pop song as backing music for a major scene is not a new television trick by any measure, but Doctor Who has never done it. So its use here signifies that we’re in an odd sort of genre. Which, by this point in the episode, we are - the Doctor Who plot has proved to be a relatively minor part of the episode, with the monster vanquished some thirteen minutes before the end. The resolution of the episode is turned over entirely to the matter of Vincent van Gogh and the impossibility of preventing his suicide. So by the time we get to the scene of van Gogh in a contemporary gallery looking at his own art we are in a fundamentally different sort of narrative than we usually are. The pop song serves to flag this, establishing that for this scene Doctor Who is doing a type of narrative defined by self-conscious sentimentality and, perhaps more importantly, a bald-faced lack of ironic detachment. This is an episode that is going to unapologetically put everything on the line in pursuit of praising and loving van Gogh.

The use of van Gogh in the first place is telling. The story is aggressively ahistorical in portraying van Gogh’s life, which adds to the sense of van Gogh as a commoditized stand-in. There’s some off-handed discussion of what’s so good about van Gogh’s art, but it amounts to “color,” which, OK, that’s true, but almost self-consciously useless. The focus gets moved to his ineffable “vision,” which gets elevated to a literal supernatural power, and then tied implicitly to his madness in such a way as to put the artist at conscious remove from larger society. The declaration that this combination of incurable mental illness and supernatural vision were necessary conditions for being the greatest artist of all time serves mainly to reinforce the idea that nobody watching can ever accomplish anything like van Gogh ever did.

This is frustrating, because the actual resolution - the note that you can’t just magically save someone from their own demons and that this furthermore doesn’t make attempts to help them meaningless or even, for that matter, failures - is a wonderfully sensitive and deft comment on mental illness. But that genuinely moving and productive observation is so smothered in the rhetoric of equating genius and madness and in the great man theory of history that animates the celebrity historical as a genre that it becomes neutered. The focus on populist acclaim as equivalent to genius does it no favors either - van Gogh’s value is ultimately tied entirely to his artistic production, which is just as often valued in purely economic terms as artistic ones. Any answer for why Amy mourns van Gogh becomes either materialist (she wanted more paintings) or a sort of inspirational glurge. If van Gogh is valued for his art, it is only because through his art he “transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty,” which is to say, he overcame his mental illness in one sphere. The sense of mental illness as something one has a moral obligation to battle against and fight persists. No wonder van Gogh killed himself - after this adventure every painting that fails to escape his mental illness becomes a failure that reiterates the worthlessness of his life and reinforces that he can’t escape his own pain.

It’s tempting to suggest that this stems from the whole-hearted embrace of sentimentality, but that seems a stretch, or, at the very least, like picking a relatively marginal aspect of a nexus of problematic ideologies running through this. Where Vincent and the Doctor becomes worth complaining about is not in its sentimentality. The moments that trade unambiguously on sentimentality - Vincent’s “We have fought monsters together and we have won. On my own, I fear I may not do as well,” and the Doctor’s “the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things” speech - are by and large the ones that work. Rather, it’s the fact that this very moving in content is wrapped up in a trite claim about the nature of artistic genius that equates it with mass popularity and that attempts to use that popularity to justify van Gogh’s art, as though that had somehow been required. 

Which is to say, essentially, that this episode would have been so vastly better if it had been about Henry Darger instead. 

Still, despite its faults, it’s worth noting that this episode is one that shows up on a lot of people’s favorite lists - particularly, it seems, people who started with the new series. And that all the muttering above about how the kids should get off my lawn consists of ideological critiques as opposed to a suggestion that the episode is bad or doesn’t work. It very stubbornly does work, and almost every criticism of it comes down to not enjoying the thing it successfully does. Which brings us back to where we started - this episode is in many ways the distillation of a particular vision of the new series. It’s fitting that it comes right after The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, which seem so much like the moment where the Moffat era realizes that it is not well-served by trying to be the Davies era with a few modifications. Vincent and the Doctor, on the other hand, feels like the purest distillation of, if not the Davies era itself (which was always weirder and more challenging than it got credit for), at least the popular vision of what the Davies era was. Between the two, they put the Davies era to rest.


There’s a narrative to be constructed here, if you’re inclined to, suggesting that this is good given that the series was seemingly bleeding ratings at this point. That’s not quite fair - the ratings aren’t actually any worse than they were around this time in 2006, and every season to date has had a dip in ratings once spring gives way to summer, a point Moffat bangs on about in interviews. But this dip seemed worse than others, and, notably, wasn’t arrested by a rebound for the finale as previous seasons were. This didn’t quite trigger a crisis for Doctor Who, but it’s notable that the next season was done very differently, consciously not airing during the time of the year where the ratings typically took a hit, and taking on a different narrative structure as a result. There really is a sense in which this run of episodes marks the point where the Moffat era starts to gain the confidence to be itself instead of being a series of modifications to what came before. Which brings us nicely to the next story.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Saturday Waffling (April 19th, 2014)

Hello all. Life is good. Wrapped up the writing of TARDIS Eruditorum entries for Series Five yesterday, and got back on finishing off the next chapter of Last War in Albion today. That's going well, and I'm quite happy with the chapter.

So, let's see. I don't think we've done a "what are you reading" thread lately if at all, have we?

What are you reading? Should the rest of us be reading it too? For me the answer is the Frank Miller Daredevil run, but that's for an already discussed reason. It's... historically very important and easy to see why people made a big deal about, but probably not essential reading for one's happiness in life. It's sort of beyond the scope of reviews: if it sounds like the sort of thing that will interest you, it probably will, and otherwise can be skipped.

Friday, April 18, 2014

We Confuse Rebellion With A Hairstyle (The Last War in Albion Part 40: D.R. & Quinch, Alan Davis)

This is the sixth and final part of Chapter Six of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Skizz and D.R. & Quinch  for 2000 AD. An ebook omnibus of all six parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords  for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation. 

The stories discussed in this chapter are available in the collections Skizz and The Complete D.R. & Quinch.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore's D.R. & Quinch featured juvenile delinquency and massive amounts of destruction played initially for countercultural and satirical laughs, but eventually played for little more than its own sake. Early installments rail against corrupt authority and the cruelties of war, but the final storyline is a largely toothless (albeit terribly entertaining) satire of Hollywood.

"We confuse rebellion with a hairstyle. Nightmare of the teenage jobscape, suddenly made stupid, weak and clumsy there among the calloused adults." - Alan Moore, The Birth Caul

The specific style in question dates to MAD #4, from 1953, and from the acclaimed story “Superduperman,” although following the success of that story it became the house style for MAD. Still, “Superduperman” is a known influence for Moore, who has credited it as an influence for both Marvelman and Watchmen, and as such is as good a vehicle to describe the style as any. In many ways “Superduperman” reflects the style of short story that Moore characterized as a “list story” when writing Future Shocks for 2000 AD. Its structure is in effect a frame for going through a bunch of parodied aspects of Superman and, later, Captain Marvel.

Figure 298: Wally Wood's extremely
detailed art packs in a number of
entertaining sight gags. (Click to
enlarge.)
And so in rapid succession the strip introduces Clark Bent, Lois Pain, and Billy Spafon, who with the magic word SHAZOOM! (Strength, Health, Aptitude, Zeal, Ox, Power of, Ox, Power of Another, and Money) becomes Captain Marbles and proceeds to have an extended fight with Superduperman. The story drips with irony - Superduperman’s chest insignia constantly changes from panel to panel, often serving as various corporate logos or notes that the space is for sale, while Captain Marbles has openly given up being a superhero in favor of making money. All of this is a barely veiled parody of the then-current legal case between National Comics (the then-owners of Superman) and Fawcett Publications, who owned the at the time more popular Captain Marvel. 

Although there is a plot - Superduperman meets and fights Captain Marbles and finally defeats him by tricking him into punching himself in the head, only to find out that Lois Pain still considers him (quite correctly, given his habit of using his X-Ray vision to spy on the women’s room) to be a creep - the plot is, like that of “Sunburn” or “They Sweep the Spaceways,” mainly an excuse to pack in jokes, including elaborate sight gags within Wally Woods’ hyper-detailed art and various suitably awful puns in the vein of Clark Bent. The story is just a frame for this parodic work. And this describes the basic approach - MAD #10’s “G.I. Shmoe,” #7’s “Shermlock Shomes,” or #13’s “Prince Violent” are all basically the same structure: stories that exist to pack in a large number of humorous distortions of recognizable characters and figures.

This also perfectly accurately describes “D.R. & Quinch go to Hollywood,” which manages to shoehorn in parodies not just of Marlon Brando but of Alfred Hitchcock and of some well-known British film critics. This is the main point of the strip - D.R. & Quinch are in effect just an occasion for Moore to write an extended list story about Hollywood. But for all that the strip is quite funny, it’s also clear that any meaningful satirical bite the story might have has been well and truly drained out of it by this point. Hollywood is, in practice, just about the safest target imaginable, and Moore is ultimately adding a not particularly notable entry to a massively large genre of Hollywood parodies. In May of 1984, when the story wrapped, Moore had never even been to the US, and was still years out from the wealth of frustrating experiences with Hollywood that he would go on to have. “D.R. & Quinch go to Hollywood” is, in other words, not the work of someone who has had even the slightest first hand experience with Hollywood; it’s just a bunch of cliches and media images of Hollywood reflected back through the eyes of an admittedly highly competent humorist. However entertaining the results, it’s miles from the furious satire of “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth” and “D.R. & Quinch Go Straight,” which visibly extended from his own experience with being branded a sociopathic juvenile delinquent and his continual anger at “the man.”

Figure 299: The final double-page splash of Moore's
final D.R. & Quinch story. (From "D.R. & Quinch Get Back
to Nature," written by Alan Moore, art by Alan Davis, in
2000 AD. Sci-Fi Special '85, 1985.)
But in truth, Moore’s own investment in that humor was rapidly waning. Over time Moore came to conclude that, as he put in a later interview, D.R. & Quinch was “something that I don’t think has any redeeming social value. It makes violence funny, which I don’t think is right. I have to question the point where I’m actually talking about thermonuclear weapons as a source of humor.” This decision fits with Moore’s larger career arc at this time; by the time of D.R. & Quinch as an ongoing series for 2000 AD Moore was deep into work on Swamp Thing, a comic he filled with ecological sentiment. The final D.R. & Quinch story, “D.R. & Quinch Get Back to Nature,” came out in the 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special ’85, the same year as his famed “Nukeface Papers” story in Swamp Thing, in which artist Steve Bisette wove chilling present-day newspaper headlines about the horrific effects of nuclear power into the art. The idea that Moore would, as he put it, decide that D.R. & Quinch “is humorous in a kind of an Animal House way, socially irresponsible kind of way, but I’m not really that comfortable about making jokes about nuclear weapons” is wholly believable.

Figure 300: The red flames of Orc. (From
America a Prophecy, Copy A, Object 17)
But there’s a broader turn in place here. By the time that Moore put D.R. & Quinch in place he was deep into V for Vendetta, a comic that existed, as Moore put it, to interrogate the British “tradition of making heroes out of criminals,” and ultimately to conclude that “killing people is always wrong” and to envision a different sort of anarchic hero who rejected violence. His rejection of D.R. & Quinch is clearly a parallel to that process, itself a parallel to Blake’s eventual rejection of Orc, the embodiment of revolution itself, as a viable opposition to Urizen’s cold and tyrannical reason. Blake described Orc’s efforts at revolution thusly: “Fury! rage! madness! in a wind swept through America / And the red flames of Orc that folded roaring fierce around / The angry shores, and the fierce rushing of th'inhabitants together,” leading to the point where “Then had America been lost, o'erwhelm'd by the Atlantic, / And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite.” 

Figure 301: D.R. & Quinch returned in
1987 in a brief series of one-page
strips featuring them as agony aunts.
(Written by Jamie Delano, art by Alan
Davis, from 2000 AD #529, 1987)
Beyond that, though, as Moore notes, “I probably got as many laughs out of it as I could.” By the final D.R. & Quinch strip Moore was reduced to recreating the sense of ridiculous violence of the first few strips by putting D.R. and Quinch in charge of a summer camp and having a strip narrated by one of the traumatized campers who writes home assuring his parents that “I sure am having a swell time at this summer camp you sent me to, and I am not being maltreated in any way.” As with the first few D.R. & Quinch stories, the humor lies in the fact that the reader is clever enough to grasp the irony in lines like this and the camper’s assertion that “our supervisors are responsible adults who certainly never get drunk and shoot out all the windows in the dormitory block.” But while this approach succeeds in restoring the central joke of D.R. & Quinch that had been largely absent since the conclusion of “D.R. & Quinch Go Straight,” the satirical bite remains gone. No longer are D.R. & Quinch railing ridiculously at the horrors of conventional authority: they’re just torturing kids by throwing them into patches of “mind-wrenchingly painful poison-stingwort.” Whatever philosophical objections Moore might have had to the nature of D.R. & Quinch’s brand of satire seem beside the point when that satire has been so completely bled out of the series through excessive repetition. 2000 AD’s 1987 attempt to revive the pair as a series of one page gags under the banner D.R. & Quinch’s Agony Page, written by Jamie Delano, proved similarly unpromising despite what is, on the surface at least, a nearly solid gold premise. 

Figure 302: The final panel of Harry Twenty on the High Rock was
unsubtly lifted from The Prisoner. (Written by Gerry Finley-Davis, art
by Alan Davis, from 2000 AD #307, 1983)
While Moore’s writing may have flagged over the course of D.R. & Quinch, however, the work of his collaborator, Alan Davis, never did. Davis had been active and acclaimed for several years by the point of D.R. & Quinch, having done work with Alan Moore for both Marvel UK and Warrior, as well as a run on the Gerry Finley-Day 2000 AD series Harry Twenty on the High Rock. But these jobs had largely established Davis as, in his own words, “the gritty realistic artist.” Certainly Harry Twenty on the High Rock supports this - it’s a quite grim prison escape story with the sci-fi twist that the prison is “a hundred miles above the earth” and “crammed with 10,000 of the hardest, most vicious criminals from the world below.” The protagonist, Harry Twenty, formerly Harry Thompson, was sent to prison for smuggling food to starving islanders, and spends the bulk of the strip trying to escape. It is, as one would expect, violent and full of unsavory figures. The strip culminates with the prison being blown out of Earth’s orbit in the course of a prison riot, and ends with Harry effectively in charge of the prison and declaring, in an act of straightforward plagiarism of The Prisoner, that “I ain’t a number any longer. I’m a free man!” The ending leaves plenty of room for a continuation, but the strip was an acknowledged mess - Finley-Day’s scripts were described charitably was “in need of battening down and knocking into shape,” and less charitably as borderline incoherent: “the sentences don’t make sense,” as Alan Grant, who had the unenviable job of rewriting Finley-Day’s already paid for scripts. It wrapped in Prog 307, and was at that point replaced with Skizz

Figure 303: Grimly Feendish, the visual
inspiration for D.R. & Quinch (From
Smash! #89, 1967)
Davis describes the experience as stressful. “When Richard [Burton] got me along to the 2000 AD offices,” he explains, “Steve [MacManus] wasn’t really too impressed with what I was doing. He didn’t really like the idea of having an American-style artist for 2000 AD. I was almost on probation, in a way.” The spectacle of an increasingly acclaimed and popular artist who was doing fantastic work for two of IPC’s competitors being given a script that had been festering in the IPC inventory since 1982 because of its obvious problems closely mirrors the strange failure of IPC to give Moore ongoing work until he was on the brink of getting poached by American companies as well.

Eventually IPC deigned to give the pair, who were well into their Eagle Award winning run on Marvelman over at Warrior a Time Twisters to do, which resulted in “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth.” Davis, for his part, was eager to shake off the reputation for grit he had acquired and, as he put it, “prove I could draw other styles of art,” and based his approach on Leo Baxendale’s Grimly Feendish strip from Odham’s Smash! and Wham!. Feendish, “The Rottenest Crook in the World,” as the strip described him, originated as a villain in Wham!’s Eagle-Eye Junior Spy before getting his own strip in Smash!, and was a would-be supervillain whose overly elaborate schemes inevitably ended tragically for him. Depicted as a short, fat, grotesque with fangs, his influence on D.R. & Quinch is evident in Davis’s design for Quinch.

Figure 304: Chrysoprasia turns to Crazy Chryssie, and Alan Davis
manages no end of humor in the visual aspects of the transition.
(From "D.R. & Quinch Go Girl Crazy," written by Alan Moore, art
by Alan Davis, in 2000 AD #353, 1984)
Davis’s non-comedic work had always benefited in part from his knack for drawing facial expressions, and he parlayed this skill into D.R. & Quinch, crafting the characters so that their faces were at once alien and tremendously expressive. Quinch generally remained impassive, as befitted his taciturn nature (virtually all of his lines across the series are simply “S’right.”), but D.R.’s supremely expressive face sells countless sight gags. Similarly, the transition of Chrysoprasia to Crazy Chryssie in “D.R. & Quinch go Girl Crazy” is accomplished largely through one single facial expression, emphasized by one of the few times Quinch’s stoic grin breaks down. 

Figure 305: D.R.'s silhouette is immediately distinctive.
(From 2000 AD #355, 1984)
The transition is also helped, however, by Davis’s excellent sense of silhouette. All of Davis’s primary characters in D.R. & Quinch have instantly recognizable outlines, and the Chrsoprasia/Chryssie transition is handled by substantially altering Chryssie’s so that her previously downturned ears stick straight up (mirroring D.R.’s) and her neatly tied bun at the front of her head explodes into a front-hanging ponytail. D.R. and Quinch themselves, meanwhile, are constructed as a classic double act, with Quinch being the large and round character while D.R. is small and skinny. D.R.’s expressive face is framed by an instantly recognizable pair of sharply pointed ears and a comically large pompadour in the Elvis Presley/James Dean mould, tying him implicitly to a long history of rebellious youth. The art is crisp, clean, and entertainingly grotesque, giving the absurd excesses of Moore’s script a note-perfect execution. 

Figure 306: Alan Davis's artistic debut
on Captain Britain.
But this is hardly surprising for what was, by the time of D.R. & Quinch, a well-honed creative partnership. Moore and Davis had been working together since June of 1982 when Moore, having made his bones on the Star Wars and Doctor Who titles published by Marvel UK, was given the reins of Marvel UK’s Captain Britain, at the time an ongoing series in the monthly anthology Marvel Superheroes. Davis had been drawing Captain Britain for the comic since September of 1981, where he made his mainstream debut illustrating a script by Dave Thorpe that served as the character’s first appearance in that title. But the history of the character stretches back considerably further. [continued]

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Transparency Report for 2013

Right, this is one of those things I've been promising to do before another Kickstarter, and I have the numbers handy, so let's go ahead and have a look at how the whole writing career went over the last year.

I'm doing this mainly because I do have to shake the cup occasionally and ask for money, and encourage people to buy books to support the project. And I feel like if I'm going to plead with you for money, you have a right to know what my financial situation is.

So, first of all, I am not the primary earner in my household. That would be my wife, who is an oncology nurse at a fairly large hospital. She makes about what you'd expect for that, which is to say, a fraction of what she deserves. We live in Danbury, Connecticut, which is around the 66th percentile in terms of cost of living in the US - a two-bedroom apartment in decent but not great repair runs us $1250 a month, to give you an idea, and that's pretty much standard market price.

I made $12,409 in royalties in 2013. $3169 of those came from the bundling of books in the Storybundle Doctor Who deal, while the other $9240 came from general sales, for an average of $770 a month. In practice this helpfully supplements my wife's income in a given month and means that we enjoy the considerable luxury of never having to get too stressed about where rent is coming from in a given month.

There was also the matter of the Kickstarter. I made some errors in calculating shipping costs that resulted in much, much more of the Kickstarter being used to fulfill rewards than I had expected. Between paying for editing and design services on four books in 2013 and rewards shipping, all but about $5000 of the Kickstarter was spoken for. (Design is about $800 a book. Final costs on shipping aren't quite nailed down because I still have some replacements to ship due to my screwing up and not using sturdy enough packaging, but they were around $6-7k.)

That $5000, along with the Storybundle windfall, essentially went to two things. The first was our honeymoon, which we took in Chicago after eloping. We drove out, stayed in a Pricelined hotel, and put all the money towards eating at nice restaurants. It was an absolutely amazing time, and we would both like to thank everyone for making it something we could do.

The second was my wife's birthday present for me, a very nice grill that lets me do all sorts of fun cooking things. I was going to include a picture of it, but I ended up writing this at about 3am, so really, not the best lighting for it. Still, I love it dearly, and have made some really lovely dinners on it. (Next up, a grill-roasted duck with potatoes, also grill-roasted.)

To sum up, then, between this job and my wife's work, we're able to maintain a pretty nice middle class existence for two. There's no shortage of stuff we could do if we had more money - any sort of expensive vacation in 2014 is currently not in the cards, for instance, and this week's budget was rather strained by the fact that we had to finally confront the annoyance of not owning a printer. Our savings aren't great, and we're not in any position to buy a house, have a kid, or afford to move somewhere less stupidly expensive than Danbury in the immediate future. But we're doing a lot better than most, and although the income from this job is a fraction of what my wife makes, it's still enough to be the difference between a constant struggle to make ends meet and being in a position where they reliably do, albeit without much left after.

All of which is to say, thank you for your support. Within the next week or so I'll be launching a Kickstarter that will fund the writing of Book Two of The Last War in Albion, the book version of Book One, and the occasionally mentioned Secret Project, which I will merely say is Doctor Who-related, book length, and will be serialized to all Kickstarter backers. (And that's really all you get unless you pledge.) That'll be a $2500 goal Kickstarter, with stretch goals being commitments to write an additional book of Last War in Albion for every $2500 over goal. My hope is that it will end somewhere in the $8k range, which will allow us to set up some substantive savings such that we can cope with unexpected emergencies and/or maybe actually take a vacation again someday.

I'm happy to answer any questions about this in comments. Thanks again for everything. It's been a heck of a year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Intelligent Alien Beings (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood)

Karen Gillan is a particular specialist at the "pretend you're
in the middle of an earthquake" aspect of acting in Doctor
Who.
It’s May 22nd, 2010. Roll Deep remain at number one with “Good Times,” which is unseated after a week by Bob and Bruno Mars with “Nothin’ On You.” with Jason Derulo, Usher, Fyfe Dangerfield, Leeds United Team & Supporters, and the cast of Glee also charting. In news, the so-called Borisbus design is debuted. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, and David Miliband all announce that they’ll stand for leadership of the Labour Party. And not much more happens.

While on television, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, a nice, meaty, two-parter. Which is to say, a relic. The two-parter, as a story structure, has seemingly been deprecated, becoming the pure historical of the new series. Like the pure historical, it lingers into the second major creative era of the show before being quietly and unremarkably done away with - two-parters are a mainstay of Series Six Part One, and have suddenly vanished by the back half.

Moffat has spoken about two-parters skeptically as a structure, arguing that the way in which they can be made to work is to have the second episode start in a markedly different place from the first - a logic that, when taken to its extreme, eventually gets you things like The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John or The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor in which the broadest form of the two-parter is preserved, but the individual stories are wholly distinct. And sure enough, the five two-parters of the Moffat era almost all do this, with  the setting change in Flesh and Stone, the unexpected time jump in Day of the Moon, and the introduction of the Ganger Doctor in The Rebel Flesh. There’s a notable exception here, of course, and it’s this story.

It tries, certainly - the switch to a historical narration from the perspective of 3020 is an attempt to make Cold Blood a materially different sort of story than The Hungry Earth. But it’s a feeble attempt designed to try to cover up the truth, which is that The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is a case of the new series doing a two-parter that is utterly faithful to why there are two-parters in the first place, namely a desire on the part of Russell T Davies to preserve the cliffhanger structure of the classic series. 

In this regard the most interesting question about these episodes, in many ways, is what Tat Wood is going to think of them. As one of the few people capable of suggesting that the new series ought be more like the classic series without sounding like an utter fool, these episodes ought be of particular interest to him. Not least because they harken back consciously to the Pertwee era in more than just the choice of antagonists. The opening sequence is drenched in Pertwee iconography, from a giant drill (Inferno) to the bucolic Welsh setting (The Green Death). There’s talk of jungle planets, and Nasreen is fairly straightforwardly modeled off of Liz Shaw. And, of course, there’s the antagonists. 

But that’s just iconography. What really jumps out here is the structure - the fact that the way that The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was structured as a two-parter was by increasing the number of major secondary characters (four Silurians and five humans) and by taking large amounts of the storytelling very slowly. The four minute cold open of The Hungry Earth is not outlandishly long, certainly, but it’s worth thinking about how this would have been handled in other stories. It’s difficult to imagine this story being handled this way even as early as Season Six, and unfathomable that it would be structured this way in Season Seven. These days we’d collapse exposition, introducing the human characters alongside the explanation of the drill, using the need to explain the plot to Amy as an opportunity to handle all of this. Instead we get it done in multiple scenes. Likewise, we have an entire thirty second scene devoted to the Doctor getting through the main gate with the sonic screwdriver. Again, what’s striking is not how torturously long this brief scene is, but rather that it exists at all, it being exactly the sort of thing the Moffat era eventually starts trimming with abandon. 

Even where things change from how they’re done in the 1970s, it comes down to finding like-for-like replacements in a new iconography. In 1970 the human weaknesses that derail peace were the usual concerns of the 1970s: military thinking, economic greed, lust for power, all that jazz. This time it comes from a mother being overprotective of her family, which, although Moffat backs away from motherhood as a theme very soon after this, is at this point still a major and recurring theme of the new series. And, tellingly, the 1970s motivations and iconographies are all still there - they’ve just been ported over to the Silurian side, who do in fact have overly militaristic warriors and blinkered scientists of the sort who were all the rage in early 70s Doctor Who.

The result of all of this is a story that feels like the era it’s emulating more, perhaps, than any other new series episode. We’ve had occasion to look at episodes and say “this feels rather 80s” or “this is a callback to the 60s,” but we’ve never had something quite this imitative. At times it seems like the script is more interested in engaging with the Pertwee era than it is in the audience. Certainly Nasreen’s presence makes a lot more sense when read as an occasion to give Liz Shaw a departure story. And the reveal that the Silurian faces that were initially teased are just masks covering expressive faces that will actually (for the first time) allow the Silurians to actually function as individual characters instead of as people in monster suits, while clever, is also blatantly a case of saying “look, we can do things from the 1970s better now.” This is true as a statement of fact, but it’s telling that the entire reveal of the Silurians is structured around this reveal.

Admittedly, the reveal coincides with the revelation that the Silurians are individual characters. But while this was hugely notable in The Silurians, it’s somewhat less radical in 2010, when we’ve already had “the monster isn’t actually a monster” in The Beast Below and aliens with individual personalities are a standard component of the show’s bag of tricks. The moment where “the monster” becomes “Alaya” doesn’t serve as something that fundamentally reconceptualizes the entire story, not least because it’s not until Cold Blood that we get even the first hint that there are good Silurians. But more broadly, it’s because the central brilliance of The Silurians is now standard operating procedure - we haven’t had a single season of the new series that hasn’t featured monsters with individual personalities, and the “aliens are not equivalent to villains” idea has similarly become standard, if perhaps still less common than would be ideal in 2010.

Which gets at the biggest problem with redoing the Pertwee era, or at least The Silurians in 2010. What is often forgotten about The Silurians is that it’s the second Doctor Who story after a complete reconceptualization of the series’ premise. The TARDIS neither appears nor is mentioned at all - the Doctor is just a weird guy working for UNIT, and even that’s only been set up in the final episode of the preceding story. The Silurians trades heavily on the fact that the nature of the show was truly up in the air such that the idea that it might become about sharing a planet with lizard people is within the realm of possibility. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood doesn’t have that luxury, even with its near-future setting: the show is far too cautious in 2010 to do something like declare peace between Silurians and humans to be an imminent moment of future history.

There’s a bitter irony to all of this. In 1970 it was conceivable that the Silurians could actually serve as something other than antagonists, except for the fact that the show wasn’t capable of doing anything with them besides have them be men in generic monster suits. In 2010, on the other hand, the Silurians aren’t really capable of serving as anything other than glorified monsters, even though the show finally has the technical capabilities to do what Malcolm Hulke was trying to do in 1970. Instead the show ends up taking the predictable route, carefully making sure the breakdown of the peace process is ultimately the Silurians’ fault, albeit after some considerable human provocation on the part of Ambrose, and putting all the toys back in the box. 

There are, of course, ways around this that we’ll see in later stories. For all that the resolution of The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood falters, it at least gave the series Silurian costumes and, perhaps more importantly, Neve McIntosh, who will work out much better later on in the form of Madame Vastra. Obviously we’ll talk about her more when the time comes, but it’s worth pointing out that she takes the idea of the Silurians to its logical endpoint instead of attempting a straightforward Malcolm Hulke imitation: she decouples the Silurians from the monster/people line and simply functions as a character. Yes, that means she also lacks the postcolonial aspects of the Silurians proper, but if The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is how those are going to be played out, with the story ultimately siding against the Silurians while putting on a fairly banal show of pretending it cares about moral complexity, that’s probably an acceptable sacrifice.

But equally, an awful lot of what’s frustrating about this story really does come out of that /. As a single episode in which the pace is quickened and the pressure increased, this could have been at least an interesting experiment. But at the pace of two episodes and ninety minutes, with its over-inflated cast of characters it crawls, and it’s nearly impossible, at the end, to feel like this was worth doing. There may be enough good parts across the two episodes to justify doing them, but there’s not enough over ninety minutes to justify taking that long. And that, perhaps, is the true nail in the coffin of the two-parter. Because here we have a story that could have been a pretty good single episode turned into a tedious two-parter.

Curiously, though, all the extra space fails to find room for Rory, whose pseudo-death serves as the episode’s climax. That the death is temporary seems relatively clear from the episode itself, as it’s a terribly unsatisfying conclusion to that story, not least because of Amy’s forgetting Rory existed. Beyond that, given that this is Rory’s second death in two stories, the sense that there’s something wrong with the twist is so clear as to seem deliberate.

Nevertheless, it seems strange that Rory should be on the sidelines for so much of an episode where he provides the climax. His lack of any sort of hero moment leading up to his death certainly increases the sense of wrongness, but it becomes a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul - it may pay off in the eventual resolution of Rory’s plot for this season, but it only highlights the difficulties of this story, coming off as one more way in which the emphasis and focus was put in the wrong places. 

And yet for all of it, it’s hard to complain that the story exists. There are enough people who have always been inclined to insist that the new series should be more like the classic series in various ways that the temptation to try something like this had to be enormous. It was worth trying, to see if, against the odds, it could be made to work. It didn’t, which certainly isn’t proof that it couldn’t or can’t ever, but it at least serves as a needed warning sign to anyone who thinks that a medium can just be rolled back by forty years. As “great ideas to bring back” go, the Silurians looked like a good one, and again, this serves as a warning against the instinct that says that classic series concepts are inherently worth revisiting, and proves the end of the “bring back a classic series concept every year” logic. And the two-parter, by this point an instinctive and default aspect of the series’ production, stands revealed as something that can easily do more harm than good. 


The point of mistakes is to learn from them, and in every case the series did. Whatever might be said of the rest of the Moffat era, they never screw up quite like this again. This story feels, in many ways, like the moment where a lot of received dogma about how Doctor Who was supposed to work got cast aside and the Moffat era resolved to not play it safe like this again. As with many of the moments when a particular way of doing things starts to break down, it doesn’t cover itself in glory, but that’s not the point. This is, at least, an important story, if not actually a very good one.